"You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone — any person or any force — dampen, dim or diminish your light … Release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge. Release all bitterness. Hold only love, only peace in your heart, knowing that the battle of good to overcome evil is already won." These are memorable words from the eminent civil rights leader, the late John Lewis. But they could well be from Mahatma Gandhi.
October 2 – Gandhi’s birth date – is one day when we can and must not shirk from remembering and celebrating this great warrior of peace whom Einstein lauded in unforgettable terms when he said, “Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”
Even if we feel compelled to treat Gandhi as more human than divine, or give him the same rank as India’s last British viceroy Mountbatten did when he predicted, “Gandhi will go down in history on a par with Buddha and Jesus Christ,” Gandhi’s achievements were never short of being divine and miraculous. Of thin built and ungainly appearance, reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln, he harbored incredible inner strength and moral force to pursue the struggle for India’s freedom and to successfully realize his dream of an independent India.
But his view of freedom was larger than a nation simply overthrowing foreign rule. He was equally motivated to liberate Indian society by addressing and helping to get rid of its grotesque wrongs and malpractices. His struggle went further from the macro to the micro level as he sought to awaken Indians individually to probe their biases, fears, and enslavement, and to stand up for their own liberation, while allowing the same right to others.
In recent months, as protests against unequal justice and rights have taken over much of our life and political discourse, it has awakened us also to the injustice of protest – or at least of some protesters who expressed their rage by vandalizing nationally cherished monuments and statues, including that of Gandhi, located in Washington, D.C., defiling it with abusive graffiti. Among this new generation of warriors, Gandhi had to be discarded owing to his dismissive attitude to Blacks in South Africa – the same tunnel vision of history as shown by Indians who disliked Gandhi for his fairness to Muslims and people of lesser faiths and castes. That outraged resentment in fact drove his hater to assassinate him, paralleling the assassination of Lincoln.
If protest is good to fight a foreign power, it is equally valid to fight oppressive indigenous rulers and ruling elites. That was Gandhi’s lasting legacy to those seeking to emerge from under the yoke of class, caste, color, ethnic, faith, gender and any other kind of oppression. His tools were not martial or monetary. He led by example and by the simplicity and veracity of his messaging. At its core was the challenge to rise above one’s individuality and embrace universality. He wanted us to transition from inhumanity to humanity, from cruelty to humaneness, from violence to non-violence, and from divisiveness to unity.
His hope, if unrealistic, was that only by imbibing love, tolerance, acceptance, compassion and non-violence towards each other would humanity succeed in ridding itself of the evils of discrimination and socially, culturally, economically, politically and militaristically enforced inequality. That his global unifying vision remains unfulfilled cannot be held against him. Rather, we need to accept blame for our own weaknesses. As Cassius says in Shakespeare's play ‘Julius Caesar’, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings."
To hate is easy, as we repeatedly learn from history’s brutal events. So is the destruction that results from hate. Today, as supporters of the black movement’s demand for equality, we are either willing or forced to hate those who tried to fight injustices in their own brave way and within the limitations of their times. That Washington, Jefferson and other long cherished founder members of America must now be deemed vicious and hateful in total disregard of their broader constructive legacy is as unjust as to overlook their flaws, whether of owning slaves or practicing racism. Today’s fascists and antifascists who seek to rewrite history in terms that suit their own narrow agenda are as much a danger to global humanity and universality of equal rights as are those who remain apathetic or neutral and permit their counter voices to be silenced. As John Lewis noted, "I believe in freedom of speech, but I also believe that we have an obligation to condemn speech that is racist, bigoted, anti-Semitic, or hateful."
Gandhi, as many have pointed out, and he himself acknowledged, was far from perfect. He had his faults and contradictions, as do most of the world’s great leaders and as we all do, too. But in being the first to launch an experiment in self-awakening which relied on practicing soul-force and non-violence to stand up to and vanquish a mighty colonial empire, he turned the concept of fighting on its head. His undying legacy is that he launched and succeeded in making India’s freedom struggle the first successful non-violent movement in the world. Its success was his, shaped by his genius, led by his vision, and accomplished by his tactics that relied on the inner strength and goodness in all of us, and not in angry slogans plastered on streets and halls of power. As Szent-Gyorgyi, the Nobel Laureate in medicine, noted, “He taught the world that there are higher things than force, higher even than life itself; he proved that force had lost its suggestive power.”
(Neera Sohoni is an Indian American published author and freelance writer.)